With the holiday season at the doorsteps, some may look for a new camera and following up a discussion i recently had, i’d like to share some advice on what to buy. While owning Canon cameras and lenses, i try to be as vendor agnostic and unbiased as possible. In fact i will not propose a specific camera but try to provide a list of useful parameters as a basis for you to decide. The goal is to avoid wasting money on cameras and lenses which would be much better spent on a vacation to see the world and actually take photos.
First, do you need a dedicated camera for still photos? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you able and willing to spend at least €1000 on a camera body and lens?
- Are you ready for a (temporary) world of pain when moving beyond automatic mode?
- Are you limited by your smartphones camera abilities?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, please don’t waste your time and money and continue using your phones camera. It will be do an exceptional job for capturing still photo and video. Why?
Today there really is no camera market at the sub-€500 section, those simple point and shoot cameras got pretty much extinct by phones. There are lots of offers between €500 and €1000, so-called “bridge cameras” which provide a very small upgrade from your phone but have a fixed lens and cheap “system cameras” that are not really better either but allow to exchange the lens. By “system cameras” i mean DSLR and mirrorless cameras alike, the differentiation to “bridge cameras” really is to swap the lens and other accessories. A good camera and lens combination to get started will cost about €1000, regardless the vendor. Those cameras have good specs, can shoot RAW images and offer creative access to exposure. Looking for used gear is a great option but note that lenses are quite stable in price.
If you stick with automatic exposure mode, there really is not much use in switching to a dedicated camera either. Chances are that the automatic mode of your phone is much more powerful and constantly improving at a pace the camera industry currently is not. For the beginning its totally normal to use automatic exposure to get some useful images, however the power of a dedicated camera system lays in the way how the photographer can influence image composition, exposure and details in a creative way which is not possible in automatic mode. And no, “creative” does not mean bokeh simulation or subject isolation that current high-end phones offer.
In case you’re taking photos to post them on social networks or show them on your phone, there is a high probability that a dedicated camera will not really be used anyway. Getting photos off those cameras is still not trivial and a phone is the natural place to share and thus take selfies or food porn.
Lets assume the answer to any of those questions is “yes”, the next logical question is “what camera to buy?”. For 99% of photographers stepping up from smartphone photography, the answer is simple: it does not matter. Nowadays its impossible to buy a bad camera when choosing a well known vendor (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Sigma, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, Pentax…). Anyway, there has to be something to narrow down the camera market to take a decision. Typically this “something” is a list of technical parameters each camera has and is therefor easy to compare. Vendors and customers like large numbers, so the following parameters are often used for this decision:
- Resolution (Megapixels)
- ISO range (something between 50 and 51200, extended by some phantasy number)
- Dynamic Range (measured in “stops”)
- Video resolution and frame rate (like 4K@120fps)
- Still photo frames per second (between 4 and 20fps)
While those parameters have impact on photography performance, they do not really matter nowadays and are vastly overrated.
Any camera uses sensors exceeding 12 megapixels and except for special cases this is far more than needed to capture great images. The first professional digital cameras resolved at 4 megapixels and the resulting images have been printed to cover whole buildings. Really, megapixels is the last thing that should be considered for a decision. Except for wasting storage, very specific usages and “pixel peeping” there is no significant difference between a sensor resolving at 12 or 50 megapixels.
ISO range is a similar story, unless taking pictures in really dark scenarios any modern camera will provide relatively clean images up to ISO 3200. If you know how to influence your other exposure parameters (lens aperture and shutter speed) you almost always can work around choosing high ISO settings that will mess up images regardless of the camera. Only when comparing a €1000 camera to a €4000 camera there will be noticeable difference. 35mm sensors (so-called “full frame”) tend to produce less noisy images but the benefit is not huge while the difference in price is significant and you need more expensive and heavy lenses.
Dynamic range or “DR” is often used to rate a sensor. It describes the range of light intensities from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. A practical example is the ability to resolve details at areas with high contrast. Just like megapixels, there are situations where higher DR leads to better results but those are often neglectable and can be fixed by using proper exposure, filters or post processing. Any relevant camera today has a DR of at least 12 stops, which will do the job just fine. To be very clear, don’t buy gear solely by comparing results at DxOmark, many of their test results have no practical relevancy and only provide a very isolated rating.
When looking for a camera to take still photos, video capabilities should be low in priority for most users. In fact, your phone will produce better video than a sub-€2000 still photo camera in most cases. Those who really need pro-grade video will spend a lot more but probably not choose a still photo camera. For the rest of us, like semi-pro video blogging, there are great and relatively inexpensive video cameras out there.
Last but not least frame rate can be of utmost importance for specialized photography like sports. But when stepping up from a phone camera, faster frame rates are quite overrated. There really is not much reason to take 40 photos (thats a 2-second burst on a Sony a9) of a single subject. Cameras with high fps (>8) need to have exceptional data throughput, mechanical stability and focusing capabilities which makes them really expensive. Anything around 5 fps will perfectly do its job for 99% of cases.
Now, what should you look for instead? The list i propose is rather non-technical:
- User experience
- Battery life
- Size and weight
- Native lenses
- Shutter lag
- Filter size
- Buffer capacity
The first two items directly and critically influence your photography. Your camera has to be an extension of your hand and mind. If after some practice the camera still gets into your way and things are not happening intuitively, your photos will be far from what you could achieve. No additional megapixels or ISO settings could ever fix this. You’ll ultimately abandon photography if you’re uncomfortable holding and interacting with your camera. This is true for button placement, shape as well as how intuitive and responsive the software user interface is. Never underestimate the impact of details like the ability to operate the camera while writing to card and so on. Therefor always try out a camera for several days and different scenarios before deciding to buy it. For the same reason cameras tend to be terrible presents as only the photographer can decide which camera works best for individual requirements.
Battery life has become an issue again with the advent of (semi-)professional mirrorless systems (“MILC”), which use power hungry components (sensor, screens) that are active very often while maintaining a small form factor. The physically unavoidable result is small batteries and less photos per charge. A typical DSLR will do about 1000 photos on one charge, while a MILC will struggle getting out more than 400. Battery tech and power conservation is improving a lot so this downside may vanish sometime in the future. Camera body “grips” can provide space for more than one battery at the expense of adding bulk and weight.
The topic of battery life and ergonomics is directly linked to size and weight. If you take a lot of photos with a power hungry system you’ll have to buy and carry a lot of extra batteries. Cameras with lots of features are usually bigger and have more knobs and dials than less sophisticated devices. If carrying a camera becomes a burden, there is a high probability not to take it with you but fall back to your phone again. Therefor always consider a small and light camera over a huge and heavy one, even if this means sacrificing features or image quality. The same is true for lenses, especially when deciding towards a 35mm system which always requires larger lenses compared to APS-C or even MFT. There is no magic sauce that can shrink lenses while maintaining a certain focal range and aperture for a given sensor size. That being said the weight and size of the camera body becomes less relevant when mounting a big ass lens, say a 600mm f/4 @ 4kg. Quite to the contrary, a large camera body (or a normal body with grip extension) is very often beneficial with regards to balancing and shake reduction when dealing with large and heavy lenses.
When focusing on image quality while being on a budget, always choose to invest in a better lens rather than a better camera body. Each camera vendor offers a set of lenses that fit their cameras natively, which means they “just work” and don’t require any adapters. Producing lenses is a different discipline than producing camera bodies. Sigma for example has a huge range of lenses but produces relatively few models of bodies. On the other hand Sony produces lots of bodies but has to catch up with their lens selection. Building great lenses is really hard and takes a lot of resources. Optics stay optics and replacement cycles for lenses are usually decades, compared to a few years for camera bodies. Therefor the “old guys” like Nikon or Canon have a large variety of bodies as well as lenses for each and every use case. Some lenses are unique per vendor, for example the EF 11-24 f/4 while other more typical designs are implemented exceptionally well by one specific vendor, like the Zeiss Otus line. When adapting third-party lenses, features like autofocus or CA correction may get lost or work less perfect and ergonomics can suffer. Some combinations with third-party lenses work great and are both cheap and beneficial to creativity, however buying a Canon body to exclusively use Sigma lenses should make you think.
Shutter lag is the delay between triggering and the actual process of exposure, not including focusing. Good cameras should have less than 100ms of shutter lag to make sure moving subjects are captured and in-focus. Cameras with high shutter lag will significantly increase the amount of “missed” or out-of-focus subjects and mess up image composition in extreme cases. Vendors do usually not provide numbers of this metric, some for “good” reasons.
Some use-cases require to use filters in front of a lens, for example to reduce incoming light without stopping down (ND filters), to physically modify the image (polarized filters) or just safeguard the front element of a lens. Those filters fit exactly one diameter which gets defined by the lenses size and build. Good filters are typically expensive and having multiple lenses with the same filter size allows to save a lot of money. A very popular filter size ist 77mm which certain lens makers use for professional lenses from 16mm up to 200mm focal range.
When recording video, taking pictures at a wedding or similar, noise level is a critical factor. The best gear in the world won’t take pictures if you’re disturbing the cermeony. Mirrorless camera models obviously have an advantage since the flapping noise of the mirror is absent. Still there are multiple components that potentially create noise, for example shutters, lens motors and case cracking. When choosing a camera body and lens always try how loud those components are and decide if they are fit for the job. Many cameras offer a “silent” mode which reduces noise at the cost of frames-per-second.
Last but not least buffer capacity can be a real pain for sports photography and similar disciplines. There are cameras that take a lot of pictures per second but cannot store them well. This is related to both the interface type of the storage card and the internal buffer of the camera. For example a Canon 1DX Mark II with proper storage can take up to 170 RAW photos before slowing down while a Canon 70D gets slow after 15 photos. As the 1DX takes pictures at a rate of 14fps, this means 12 seconds of continuous shooting compared to 7fps or 2 seconds at the 70D.